Although it is way too early to say anything conclusive, the evidence is growing that the Nokia/Micorosft relationship over Windows Phone is succeeding for both companies. The first of two Windows Phones introduces by Nokia, the Lumia 800, has rocketed to become the most popular Windows Phone to date despite not yet shipping in the U.S. The lower price Lumia 710 just started to ship last weeek, which should add dramatically to volumes. At the same time Nokia is continuing to introduce the Lumia line in additional countries, with an expected announcement of U.S. launch with T-Mobile coming later this week. Rumors of a Nokia Lumia with LTE support for both AT&T and Verizon coming early next year are growing. Meanwhile Nokia CEO Stephen Elop is talking about working together with Microsoft to establish Windows Phone as a preferred smartphone for businesses. Both companies have to be pretty happy with the early goings in their relationship.
I’ve been thinking more about what is so different between Microsoft and Nokia vs other Windows Phone partnerships, and it is clear that Nokia’s commitment to 100% use of Windows Phone on its Smartphones is the key. Take a look at Samsung and HTC’s Windows Phone offerings and you see that they are little more than warmed over versions of devices that those companies make for Android. Put another way, both companies take their best ideas and apply them to Android phones, then send a small team off to adapt those devices for Windows Phone. Only Nokia is applying its best ideas to Windows Phone first, and exclusively. And although Microsoft is throwing marketing dollars at all of the players, the campaigns Nokia is putting on in Europe are both more innovative and more visible than what Samsung and HTC are doing in any of their markets (including the U.S.) This is why Nokia well deserves to have more influence with Microsoft than any of the other players in the Windows Phone ecosystem.
It would be easy for a Samsung or HTC to have a similar relationship with Microsoft to what Nokia currently has (and indeed, before it became the initial launchpad for Android phones, HTC did have such a relationship), they would just have to put Windows Phone first. But neither will. Samsung is not only committed to Android, it also has its own BADA smartphone platform. And HTC is so committed to offering its own distinctive user experience that, if anything, it would try to add its own homegrown platform (ala BADA) rather than focus on Windows Phone. At least with Android HTC feels they can customize it enough to have a very HTC-specific user experience. Both Samsung and HTC will stay in the Windows Phone market because for very little incremental engineering work it can provide them with a nice incremental revenue stream. But absent a sea-change (e.g., Apple’s patent assault on Android preventing them from shipping Android devices for an extended period, or their worst nightmares around what Google does with its wholly owned Motorola subsidiary coming true) they will never again take a leading position with Windows Phone. Most likely the real challengers to Nokia will be smaller Asian-based manufacturers who find the Android world too crowded and elect to work with Microsoft on Windows Phone as an alternative. In other words, someone who wants to be the next HTC and will ride Microsoft (and Nokia’s) coattails to get there.
I keep hearing from friends that the next wave of Windows Phones from Nokia will really blow me away. Certainly the current offerings from Samsung and HTC, while very cool, aren’t enough of an upgrade from my Samsung Focus for me to upgrade after only 1 year. And the current Nokia Lumina 710 and 800 are missing some things I really want (4″ or greater screen, front facing camera). So I’ve decided to wait to see what Nokia is bringing in 2012. In the meantime it looks like even Nokia’s modest initial efforts are making great strides in the world Smartphone market.